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Global Environment

Malta: Seemingly blind to environmental tragedies

Despite my innate sense of patriotism, I am finding it increasingly challenging to keep a positive demeanour when I speak to people about the Maltese environment. Such is expected when exposed to a foreign ideology in which environmental issues and environmentalists  are not frowned upon and dismissed as irrelevant. While 2014 is being marketed as the year of milestones (including surviving 50 years of Independence), I would rather it be remembered as the year when Maltese people start accepting their environmental responsibilities and understanding the limitations and vulnerability of our local ecosystems.

In 2013 Spring hunting season, there were 9,500 registered hunters. This translates to a shared hunting quota of 11,000 turtledoves and 5,000 quails – 1.68 birds per hunter. Too many hunters? (Photo credit: TimesofMalta)

For as long as I can remember, the main environmental issues that people have harped on were development, hunting and air pollution. While most local experts in the field would dismiss these three issues as a result of bipartisan conflict and lack of political will, I personally also attribute them to the Maltese population’s culture of excess and selfishness – the perfect concoction for a Tragedy of the Commons.

The ‘Tragedy of the Commons‘ principle was proposed by Garrett Hardin in 1968, where he argued that common resources that belong to every member of the community can become destroyed or corrupted as a result of the unsustainable use by selfish individuals at the expense of the general population. While this theory was put forward almost exactly between Malta’s Independence from the UK (1964) and its declaration as a Republic (1974), it has yet to become assimilated into our thinking and planning processes.

In his argument, Hardin provides a scenario to illustrate how the tragedy of the commons develops. Imagine a pasture that is freely open to all. It is expected that every farmer/herder will keep as many cattle as he/she can on the commons. The only thing limiting the numbers would be factors such as tribal wars, poaching and disease, which keep the natural carrying capacity of both man and beast in check. This cannot go on for long, as tragedy is soon to follow. Humans are rational beings, so each farmer would seek to maximise his gain, where he asks “What harm can be done by adding one more animal to my herd?”

Seeing no immediate change to the pasture, his herd and other farmers in the community, the rational farmer concludes that the only sensible thing to do is  add ANOTHER animal to his herd, and another; and another…. But this is the conclusion reached by each and every rational farmer sharing a commons. Therein is the tragedy. The system actually urges each individual to increase his herd without limit – in a world that is limited.

Malta’s persistent list of tragedies

If we take our three main environmental issues, we have three commons that supposedly belong to the Maltese population: wild birds, land and the atmosphere. If we simply substitute the ‘farmer’ in the above analogy with the Maltese citizen (be it a hunter, a developer/contractor, or a vehicle user), we get people using the same commons to different grades.

It immediately becomes apparent that in all three cases, the Maltese citizen is using the commons at a critical rate that is too close to the ‘tragedy’. Illegal hunting and even ‘controlled’ spring hunting is too unsustainable for our ecosystem, so is the large amounts of development, and the ever increasing numbers of registered vehicles.

  • In the 2013 spring hunting season, there were 9,500 registered hunters.
  • In 2013, there were around 15,000 vacant properties in Malta ready for habitation, and around the same number that need extensive repair – the population of Malta will reach its peak at 438,000 in 2025 according to UN figures, meaning these 30,000 vacant plots would most definitely suffice any possible future need
  • In 2013, there were 315,875 licenced vehicles in Malta, which is a shocking figure when one considers that for the same period there were 309,600 eligible voters for the General Election (18+) – which means THERE ARE MORE REGISTERED VEHICLES THAN 18+ ADULTS IN MALTA.

Photo credit: TimesofMalta

All these figures clearly point to an unsustainable approach to how we enjoy our ‘hobbies’, carry out our business and essentially live our lives. The sad reality is that the Maltese citizens are rushing to their own demise, a situation that is exasperated by past and present governments that have no environmental foresight other than what translates into money or votes.

Hardin argued that “Ruin is the destination toward which all men rush, each pursuing his own best interest in a society that believes in the freedom of the commons”. Tenacity and hardheadedness is a widespread quality amongst Maltese citizens, each person seeking to exert their ‘right’ to enjoy their hobby, build their property or use their vehicle, without stopping to think about the benefit of the community.

Malta always ends the year by an annual Christmas period charity event, with politicians and public figures lauding the nation’s generosity. It is ironic that the same nation that is so willing to help the poor and needy rarely stops to think about the consequences of their selfish actions. Here’s hoping 2014 (and this article) will bring a sliver of change amongst the Maltese community, for the benefit of our shared commons.

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